A new exhibit, Steel Ponies, has opened up in downtown Indianapolis at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art. What is unusual about this opening is the subject matter: Motorcycles. The connection can be found in the museum’s press release that states, “Motorcycles remain symbols of adventure, freedom, individualism and even danger—ideas often connected to concepts of the American west.” That works for me.
The Eiteljorg Museum opened in 1989 under its founder, Harrison Eiteljorg. It sits in the White River State Park and is the only one of its kind in the Midwest. It also lays
claim to being one of only two museums east of the Mississippi displaying Native American and Western art, culture and history. Architect Jonathan Hess and Eiteljorg designed the building to have a Southwest Pueblo feel and the exterior is covered with pieces of Minnesota Dolomite with German sandstone as the base—mission accomplished.
The idea of bringing a motorcycle exhibit to an art museum is not a new one, but tying in the bike as art to this themed American Indian museum is a stretch. It’s exactly what needs to be done in today’s society—bring in a current popular passion and mesh it with the past. Seeing leather-clad groups of people spending time visiting the rest of the place, and not just the special exhibit, is what the curator had in mind here. They hit the nail on the head with this one.
With over 20 motorcycles on display, spectators are treated to bikes from the past all the way up to today’s radical customs. Harley-Davidsons and Indians sit side-by-side along with fabricated bikes designed and built by Native Americans with heritage from Apache and Lakota Sioux tribes.
The oldest bike is a 1902 Indian Camelback on loan from the Smithsonian Institute, and The Motor Company’s own museum sent down a 1905 Harley-Davidson. (It is believed that production motorcycles were first offered in 1904 or 1905, and not 1903 when the business began.) A 1908 Indian Racer was even brought over from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. It once was raced on the famed oval in 1909 by Erwin George “Cannonball” Baker and recently ridden by Nicky Hayden when the Moto GP began racing on the track again in 2008.
Also on display is a 1915 Harley-Davidson 11J Twin 3-speed named “Effie” that was ridden in 2010 by Cristine Sommer-Simmons from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, in 17 days during the Motorcycle Cannonball Run. Cris named the bike after Effie Hotchkiss, the first woman to ride from Brooklyn, New York, to the World’s Fair in San Francisco, California, with her mother Avis in an attached sidecar back in 1915.
Along with a 1914 Harley-Davidson “A Motor” board track racer is a 1929 Indian Scout Wall of Death “drome racer.” Mildred Tinkham rode a 1911
Scout and a crate bearing her name rounds out this fantastic display.
A 1929 Harley-Davidson JDH with a doublewide sidecar is also on display at the museum. The JDH was advertised as the fastest model ever with its twin-cam setup. Less than 100 of these models were ever built, making this bike very rare. It is a great bike with the sidecar (also very rare) attached to it.
Another special bike is a 1950 Harley “Tex” bike. Premier bike builder Mil Blair put it together after the “Tex” Keeler motorcycle featured on the iconic April 7, 1951 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The artwork, created by Stevan Dohanos, features three school-age boys admiring the beautiful bike with the name “Tex” on the saddlebag. Other well-known bikes include a reconstructed Dragon Bike, ridden by Peter Fonda in the film The Wild Angels, and the famous Captain America bike from the movie Easy Rider, also ridden by Fonda.
Daniel Sanchez of Cut Throat Customs created a special bike just for this exhibit, a 2012 custom board track racer. Daniel puts out some amazing metal work in his builds that he attributes to his great grandfather, an Apache artisan. Troy Vargas from Lakota Choppers fashioned “Great Spirit” in 25 days. He lined the outside of the tank with feathers and also incorporated hide, wood and stone in this beautiful bike. Orange County Choppers built a bike for the Saginaw Ziibiwing Center in 2009 for their TV show and the center graciously loaned out the bike for display. Arlen Ness sent his “Untouchable” bike to the show for all to see. The 1947 Knucklehead was his first attempt in the custom bike-building arena back in 1963.
My favorite had to be a 2006 custom dubbed “Art Attack,” built by Russ Hess with Cowboy Customs. Russ came out of a 31-year retirement to build this Western-themed bike. He took 800 hours to complete the project. The unique ride features 47 pieces of engraved silver overlay and 115 gold flowers and rubies. It looks like it would be one wild ride.
But the bikes here are not the only things to see. Backdrop pictures accompany many of the two-wheeled wonders and the walls around them are filled with posters, special plaques and info sheets that represent motorcycles through the years. These are well worth the time to read and they are as special as the bikes themselves.
Opening day had curator White Wolf James and artist Jim Yellowhawk on hand to answer questions. Mark Medersky, a consultant with the National Motorcycle Museum, was also there discussing and showing the movie Easy Rider, as well as introducing Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Walter Davidson, one of the original founders of Harley-Davidson. She gave a talk and slideshow presentation on her life growing up in the family. Out in front of the museum, on the sidewalk, local artists Pete Brown and Pieter Van Tongeren created some street art on an eight-square-foot mural. A board track racer was their first one and it was a masterpiece. You can watch a time-lapse three-minute video of their first attempt on YouTube and they will be doing one per month through the run.
The show continues through August 5 and special event days are planned during the exhibit. Some of the specials are: Bike Builders Day; History Day with Ed Youngblood, former president and CEO of AMA; Ride-In Bike Show Day; and Celebrating Women and Motorcycles Day with special guest Cris Sommer-Simmons, co-founder of Harley Women Magazine and AMA Hall of Fame member. To find out more information on this wonderful event, go to www.eiteljorg.org.